Nuclear weapons release vast amounts of energy. They do this by breaking apart the bonds of the atom, but this is not all they break apart. They also break apart the bonds of our relationships with the Earth, with other forms of life and with the future. This is part of the nuclear fallout that occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and has continued through the Nuclear Age.
Nuclear weapons are capable of destroying cities, as was demonstrated by the US attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We know that the destructive capacity of these weapons does not end there. They are also capable of destroying countries and civilization as we know it. The philosopher John Somerville coined the term “omnicide” to describe the potential destructive capacity of nuclear weapons – the death of all. In the Nuclear Age, our destructive capacity has moved from homicide to genocide to omnicide.
In considering the fallout of nuclear weapons, we might ask: what have these weapons done to our psyches? The destructive potential of our nuclear inventions transcends the death of an individual or group and shows us a glimpse of the death of all. For those of us willing to look, this is a fearful view into the abyss, a darkened world of incineration and shadows, a world barren of life. Although nuclear weapons bring us close to the precipice of such a world, most of us choose to avert our eyes and our minds from grasping the reality. We gamble the human future on the judgment and human fallibility of political and military leaders. This strikes me as a very bad bet.
It is argued that no weapon ever created has been discarded until another, more powerful weapon has taken its place. But with nuclear weapons we do not have this luxury. Nuclear weapons force us to put aside our childish and tribal ways of solving conflicts. They push us to higher levels of maturity. We cannot continue our old ways and survive in a nuclear-armed world.
Ten Reasons to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
Let me share with you ten reasons to abolish nuclear weapons:
1. They are long-distance killing machines incapable of discriminating between soldiers and civilians, the aged and the newly born, or between men, women and children. As such, they are instruments of dehumanization as well as annihilation.
2. They threaten the destruction of cities, countries and civilization; of all that is sacred, of all that is human, of all that exists. Nuclear war could cause deadly climate change, putting human existence at risk.
3. They threaten to foreclose the future, negating our common responsibility to future generations.
4. They make cowards of their possessors, and in their use there can be no decency or honor. This was recognized by most of the leading generals and admirals of World War II, including Dwight Eisenhower, Hap Arnold, and William Leahy.
5. They divide the world’s nations into nuclear “haves” and “have-nots,” bestowing false and unwarranted prestige and privilege on those that possess them.
6. They are a distortion of science and technology, siphoning off our scientific and technological resources and twisting our knowledge of nature to destructive purposes.
7. They mock international law, displacing it with an allegiance to raw power. The International Court of Justice has ruled that the threat or use of nuclear weapons is generally illegal and any use that violated international humanitarian law would be illegal. It is virtually impossible to imagine a threat or use of nuclear weapons that would not violate international humanitarian law (fail to discriminate between soldiers and civilians, cause unnecessary suffering or be disproportionate to a preceding attack).
8. They waste our resources on the development of instruments of annihilation. The United States alone has spent over $7.5 trillion on nuclear weapons and their delivery systems since the onset of the Nuclear Age.
9. They concentrate power in the hands of a small group of individuals and, in doing so, undermine democracy.
10. They are morally abhorrent, as recognized by virtually every religious organization, and their mere existence corrupts our humanity.
In December 2010, the US Senate voted 71-26 to ratify the New START agreement with Russia. It was a struggle to obtain the requisite two-thirds majority of the Senate needed for ratification, but in the end enough Republicans joined with the Democrats to assure the treaty’s ratification. With previous strategic arms reduction treaties, however, the votes for ratification were largely bipartisan, reflected by overwhelming majorities.
The New START agreement was described by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, as “vital to national security.” The treaty has four important benefits.
First, it will reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons on each side to 1,550 by the year 2017. This is about a one-third reduction from the 2,200 agreed to in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). However, there are some accounting irregularities that were agreed to in New START, such as counting each bomber plane as having one nuclear weapon even though it could carry up to 20.
Second, it will reduce the number of delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons to 800 total, with an upper limit of 700 of these deployed.
Third, it will put inspectors back on the ground in both countries to verify compliance with the treaty. There have been no inspections since December 2009, when the START I agreement expired.
Finally, it will hopefully keep the US and Russia moving forward on reducing their arsenals still further in the years to come. A failure to ratify the New START agreement would have been disastrous for US-Russia cooperation.
Despite the important benefits of the treaty, however, it should not be forgotten that it still leaves the US and Russia with 1,550 deployed strategic weapons each, more than enough to destroy the world many times over. It also does not place limits on the shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons or the strategic nuclear weapons held in reserve. These issues will be on the agenda of future US-Russia negotiations.
There was also a heavy price pledged by President Obama for obtaining Republican votes for the treaty, approximately $185 billion over the next ten years. About $85 billion will go to the modernization of the nuclear infrastructure in the country and the modernization of the US nuclear arsenal. Another $100 billion will go to improving the delivery vehicles to carry the nuclear weapons. These expensive improvements to US nuclear forces cast reasonable doubt on the seriousness of the US commitment to nuclear disarmament.
The Republicans were also able to extract a promise from President Obama regarding missile defenses. As a candidate for President in October 2007, Obama said, “I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems.” In an effort to get the New START agreement ratified, President Obama wrote in December 2010 to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, “…as long as I am President, and as long as the Congress provides the necessary funding, the United States will continue to develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect the United States, our deployed forces, and our allies and partners.” Candidate Obama had it right that missile defense systems were “unproven.” President Obama had it wrong that such systems are “effective.” In recent months, two missile defense tests from Vandenberg Air Force base have been admitted failures with no intercepts, and these were simple tests without multiple attack missiles or decoys.
New START is only what it says – a start. The only stable number of nuclear weapons in the world is zero, and this must be our goal. The way to get to zero is through a negotiated Nuclear Weapons Convention, a new treaty for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. A Nuclear Weapons Convention will require leadership from the US and other countries. Leaders must be pushed from below. In effect, the people must lead their leaders. Achieving the goal of Zero must start with each of us.
The path to achieving change in the Nuclear Age starts with the implementation of some traditional means for bringing about change: conscience, compassion, courage, cooperation, creativity and commitment.
Conscience is the voice inside that distinguishes right from wrong, and moves us to take action for what is right. It is a capacity that is uniquely human. We can recognize right from wrong and choose our course. With conscience there is always choice.
Compassion is the force of love put into action. Along with poet John Donne, we must recognize that we are “a part of the continent, a piece of the main.” We must care for the Earth and all its inhabitants. Compassion does not recognize borders. We all share a common Earth. We are all created equal. We are all diminished by nuclear threats or any other threats to the well-being of people anywhere.
It takes courage to think differently, to break away from the group-think of the tribe. It takes courage to express compassion and to embrace the world. It takes courage to wage peace rather than war.
Cooperation is needed to solve the world’s great problems. There is no significant global problem – war, abuses of human rights, environmental degradation, climate change, nuclear threat – that can be solved by any one nation alone. It takes not only a village, but a world to bring about the changes that are needed.
Creativity is also essential to change. It will take new and creative ways of thinking to prevent the ultimate catastrophe to ourselves and our fellow inhabitants of Earth. Einstein said prophetically, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” We must change our modes of thinking, and replace the old patterns with new ones. We must become world citizens and peace leaders.
Commitment will keep you going when the goal seems distant and the obstacles seem overwhelming. No great goal is easy to attain, but some goals – and I would place the abolition of nuclear weapons among these – are challenges that cannot be ignored or cast aside. The future, which cannot speak for itself and has only our voice, deserves our commitment.